January 24th, 2012

America: Land of Class Conflict and Limited Opportunity?

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kate middleton

**Today’s guest post is contributed by LearnVest.**

Two recent findings about our country have our rose-colored glasses hitting the pavement.

The first by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of Americans believe that the class divide between rich and poor is now the biggest concern in our country—more pressing than either racial strain or immigration conflicts, two issues that have historically challenged the country.

With Occupy Wall Street in the news, maybe that wasn’t such a big a shocker. But prepare yourself for the second finding, which is actually the conclusion of several studies and upends conventional wisdom: Class mobility here is weaker than in Canada or Europe.

In the Land of Opportunity, it turns out our opportunities are more limited and our class conflicts greater than we think.

The Clash of the Classes

The Pew Research Center surveyed 2,048 people and found that a large majority noted “strong conflict” between the stratified social classes. And the number of people who think so has surged by 50% from only two years ago.

But the fact that they see that this conflict exists doesn’t mean they feel hostility themselves—or necessarily support government action to reduce income inequality. Interestingly, the survey also indicated that negative responses to statements like, “The rich are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families” —which might point to resentment or hostility—have remain largely unchanged in the past two years.

(Not) Movin’ on Up

Conventional wisdom says that rigid class structure is a hallmark of countries like Great Britain or India. The U.S. is the scrappy younger cousin, brimming with potential and offering opportunity to every resident on the condition of hard work. But it turns out that common wisdom is more like common misperception.

For instance, one of several studies showing that the U.S. is less socially mobile than other countries found that 42% of American men from the bottom fifth of income levels are still there as adults, compared to 25% in Denmark and 30% in Britain. Those born in the top and bottom fifths tend to be especially ensconced in their given place. (This New York Times illustration shows just how entrenched.) Some of the reasons researchers present are:

  • The depth of American poverty means that poor children in the U.S. start with an exaggerated disadvantage.
  • Educated workers benefit from an uneven distribution of pay, but education is so expensive it’s difficult to attain.
  • Common public health problems in the U.S., such as obesity and diabetes, can interfere with education and employment.

Read the rest of this story over at LearnVest!

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